Disclaimer: India is a BIG country. Not just big but super diverse. Therefore there are many layers to Indian culture as well as many differences within and between the individual families of India. The following is subjective and based on my experiences in India. It’s not a one-size-fits all representation nor does it try to be, but moreover represents a broad generalisation to sum up (i.e make sense of things in my own head) what I have experienced so far.
My first few weeks, possibly even months, in India I thought people were really rude.
I’d observe social interactions happening around me between people and reflect on my own social encounters and think, where are all the manners? Why aren’t people nice to each other? On the other hand, I was constantly being told that I am ‘too formal.’ ‘Ma’am, your formalities are not necessary’ would be the response I’d frequently receive when I was just being polite.
So then I got my head out of my arse and started to ask the important questions: why is it like this? I began to wonder why there seemed to me to be such a lack of manners here and why I did I keep being told off for being polite?
The problem mostly seemed to stem from the use, or lack thereof, of please and thank you.
These two ‘magic words,’ as they are commonly referred to in Western culture, have been drilled into me since birth. My parents, my teachers, shopkeepers, strangers on the bus have always been there to remind me again and again when I slip up to always ‘watch my manners’ and say please and thank you.
One of India’s national languages, Hindi, has translations for please and thank you, krpya and dhanyavaad, but I’ve rarely heard them being used from native speakers. It’s not uncommon to be met with silence when you offer your seat on a crowded train or to be completely ignored when you hold the door open for someone.
In London, if any one of the above scenarios played out, I’d probably tut and complain in shock about the utter rudeness of it. Or if I really wanted to make a point I might even utter a loud ‘PLEASE’ or ‘THANK YOU’ just to let it be known that I expected verbal recognition and appreciation of my kindness.
Part of the answer to these questions, I found, is that please and thank you, although they have universal translations, do not have a universal application. They are included in the rules of etiquette of a particular country, but they have a cultural context and this is something that differs from place to place. The use of please and thank you to accompany an askance or when something is received, is very much part of Western etiquette (but definitely not exclusive to Western culture by any means). Each part of the world, specifically India, has its own way of expressing gratitude which is intrinsically understood and accepted by those who live there, just as please and thank you are considered a given in the West.
So when this finally clicked in my brain I began to see the subtle signs of politeness and gratitude that exist in India everywhere, and with that my understanding of what it means to be ‘polite’ or grateful began to broaden and develop and of course, my attitude that ‘the people of India are rude’, was quickly thwarted.
Take manners amongst friends as an example. In India, there are certain expectations or loyalties that exist between friends. When you go to visit a friend, you can expect a glass of water and something to snack on. It’s not a favour, so a thank you is not necessary. Asking for things or responding to things that are expected in a polite manner to your friends in this country is generally seen as odd, unnecessarily formal and can cause some confusion about the status of your relationship. It can even cause offense.
And this is not limited to small acts, the same applies to larger deeds also. Picking a friend or relative up from the airport, driving your partner to work in the mornings, paying for your friend’s meal, lending your friend/family member money, even any one of these won’t typically earn you a verbal gratification nor will it require you give one neither. There is an underlying sense of loyalty that one can expect from their Indian friend. There are many reasons for this. Some are this way because they want to be, whilst for others it may be more of a moral obligation stemming from how their families or to some degree society has taught them to behave. Conditioning does come into it too.
I spent some time living with a family from Aurangabad and I observed what happened at mealtimes. Two children were in the family and I would watch as they waited for their mother to sit down before they started eating, made sure she had a drink with her meal and would take her plate into the kitchen after she’d finished. There was no please or thank you uttered, except of course from me, but there was so much gratitude expressed towards the mother who had been the one preparing the meals that it didn’t once feel rude or that the mother’s efforts hadn’t been appreciated.
In the search of my initial answers, I found another interesting answer to do with the concept of karma.
I have some friends who run a cafe in Goa and one day I went in and saw that they were very busy. I wasn’t, so I started washing some of the plates and cutlery that was piled up in their sink. I didn’t expect a thank you but I also didn’t expect to hear what my friend said to me when he saw what I was doing; ‘I’m happy I can give you the chance to earn some good karma.’
Unlike in Western cultures, the concept of karma penetrates deep in the conscious of Indian people. We (westernerss) mostly have a very limited and shallow understanding of it. You hear it now and then, but the way it’s used is mostly threatening; ‘what goes around comes around,’ ‘that’ll come back to bite you on the arse.’
Karma, is an important concept of Hinduism (and other religions also including Buddhism and Jainism). Belief in karma is deeply ingrained in the minds of Hindus, the most widely practiced religion in India, according to which actions will have consequences in relation to their nature. For many Indians, karma is not just a spiritual law but a real substance that manifests itself in the actions of people’s everyday lives. For them, their is the belief that while no one can really be free from the law of karma, people can minimise its negative impact by leading a righteous life, and they strive to do so.
Looking at the example of my friend, he didn’t feel the needs to thank me for helping him out, because by doing so I was able to transform some of my negative karma I have stored in my personal ‘Bank of Karma’ and deposit some good karma, and isn’t that recompense for my efforts enough?
Travel, for me, is about connecting with people. It’s about challenging my own prejudices and gaining a better understanding of cultures and practices unfamiliar to me and different to my own. If I am constantly judging people based on the standards of etiquette from my culture of birth, for instance, not only am I being ignorant but I risk labeling entire groups of people wrongly, failing to realise that we each have different ways of doing things.
I’m definitely not giving up on my formalities altogether, I think they are a wonderful thing. But I am learning that there are other ways to show appreciation and gratitude, and that manners can be and are more than just a please and thank you, they can be expressed in many ways.
Do you have any examples of discovering different cultural traditions from your own during your travels? I’d love to hear about them!